To truly reflect diversity, PBS must end its overreliance on Ken Burns as ‘America’s Storyteller’ – October 22, 2020
Current.org: Grace Lee’s provocation on the need for “more than one lens” for PBS’ long-form documentary films is republished here in full with permission from the Ford Foundation.
For many, public television is synonymous with Ken Burns. Documentary series like The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and The Vietnam War have led PBS to market him as “America’s storyteller,” as if there were only room for one. It’s worth remembering how and why PBS came to be, and time to reinvent this system for today’s America.
In 1967, amid widespread civil unrest, CPB was created by an Act of Congress “to expand and develop a diversity of programming dependent on freedom, imagination and initiative on both local and national levels.” PBS was founded in 1969 to interconnect public television stations and distribute programs. Fifty-one years later, as we undergo another societal breakdown and racial reckoning, how much does PBS reflect the audiences it was intended to serve?
“We create lots of opportunities for many filmmakers,” Kerger said. Burns “mentors a number of filmmakers who now have quite established careers … and he has a deep commitment to mentoring diverse filmmakers.”
She said she “respectfully disagrees” with Lee’s arguments in a essay last fall for the Ford Foundation. Among them: that PBS decision-makers and funders have an interdependence with “one white, male filmmaker” who represents “one man’s lens on America,” as Lee put it.
We are filmmakers, producers, directors, executives and programmers. Many of us have had our work funded, commissioned and distributed by PBS and we greatly value public broadcasting. In that spirit, we feel compelled to express our disappointment with your remarks which fail to acknowledge efforts across the field that not only diversify voices on major platforms, but also attempt to repair past injustices. Keeping this collective vision in mind, when Lee questions the network’s over-reliance on one white male filmmaker you “respectfully disagree” with her argument. We respectfully ask to understand the basis of your disagreement. Specifically, is there data to support it?
The Emmy-winning documentarian Ken Burns said Thursday that he supports the goals of a group of nonfiction filmmakers who have criticized PBS over a lack of diversity and an “over-reliance” on his work.
“I wholeheartedly support the objectives of the letter writers,” Burns said in an interview. “I think this is hugely important, and one of the reasons we’ve been in public television has been a commitment to inclusion and diversity.”
“But can we do better? Of course we can. Can PBS do better? Of course they can,” Burns added.
We are a group of non-fiction filmmakers and members of the Documentary Producers Alliance-Northeast (DPA-Northeast), representing filmmakers in New England and upstate New York. We are writing alongside other New England film professionals to register our complaint against Emily Rooney for her demeaning and racist commentary on Beat the Press, April 2nd.
Many of us have produced for GBH, which is known for its fact-based reporting and integrity. Rooney is a longtime presence there, touted in her bio as someone with “deep knowledge of media, politics and culture.” The program we reference was about access to airtime and funding from PBS – which concerns all of us. Instead of showcasing her understanding of the subject, Rooney relied on derision, racist tropes and more ignorance than fact.
GBH’s Emily Rooney Apologizes For ‘Uninformed, Dismissive and Disrespectful’ Comments About Filmmakers Of Color – April 16, 2021
A group of local documentary filmmakers sent a letter to GBH this week holding “Beat the Press” longtime host Emily Rooney accountable for comments she made on her show suggesting that work by filmmakers of color does not stand up to that of documentarian Ken Burns…
The response was swift. Rooney recorded an apology broadcast at the beginning of “Beat the Press” Friday, according to Jeanne Hopkins, spokeswoman for GBH. But staff inside say people are furious with what they feel is an insufficient response to handle what is just a symptom of a larger toxic culture.